NEPCA will meet on the campus of Providence College in Providence, RI October 24-25, 2014.
For conference information, click on the FALL CONFERENCE tab above. This will take you to a page where you find all the materials you need. Scroll down to “How Do I Submit a Proposal?”
Donn Piatt: Gadfly of the Gilded Age. By Peter Bridges. Kent, OH: Kent State University Press, 2012.
The word ‘gadfly’ references those whose probing questions challenge constituted authority. It can also mean an annoyance of either insect or human form. Gilded Age journalist Donn Piatt (1819-91) was a social critic and a crank–the sort of man who made nervous friends and powerful enemies, both of whom sometimes wondered if he was fully human. His personal hubris was that he often failed to pick allies and foes wisely and displayed a penchant for attacking the perceived shortcomings of friends with the same vitriol normally reserved for one’s opponents.
Former Foreign Service officer Peter Bridges presents a well-researched portrait of a man who is often hard to stomach. Piatt’s unusually spelled first name was a product of his Huguenot heritage, and a modern psychologist might suggest he also inherited a persecution complex from his French Protestant ancestors. He made his greatest impact in newspapers, especially The Capital, published in Washington, DC. Piatt fancied himself a corruption-hating editor and investigative reporter, though “editorialist” probably better describes his partisan slash-and-burn approach to politics. Although Piatt was deeply opposed to slavery during the antebellum period, he was also a lifelong Democrat who found Whigs annoying and Republicans contemptible. He was especially rough on Republicans and fellow Ohioans U. S. Grant and Rutherford B. Hayes, but a list of former Piatt friends that came to despise him includes Thomas Nast, Mark Twain, and Walt Whitman, each known to be contrarians in their own right.
Bridges is occasionally critical of Piatt, but he also clearly admires him and finds him humorous, both judgments open to question. Bridges too often takes Piatt at face value and rationalizes his pig-headedness; he also shortchanges analysis through a gossipy writing style that induces abrupt continuity breaks. One longs for deeper critiques of some of Piatt’s more ridiculous opinions, among them that Jefferson Davis was more honorable than Grant, and that the greatest Union Civil War generals were George H. Thomas and William Rosecrans! Piatt had strong opinions on many subjects, but decades after the Civil War he rehashed tactics and command decisions that few Americans could recall. A dispassionate assessment might be that by the end of the Grant administration, Piatt had become the classic Gilded Age “kicker.”
Piatt was also a lobbyist and a political self-seeker who longed for a diplomatic posting, but what does it tell us when the only political plum he ever received came from Grover Cleveland: a $40-per-annum appointment as postmaster for Mac-o-cheek, Ohio, near where Piatt erected a family castle? (And what does it say when Piatt felt this post as conferred the gravitas necessary for making suggestions on how to improve the postal service?) Bridges admits that Piatt was “muckraker” and a “gadfly,” but also insists that his “years of useful service to the American republic” were analogous to those of Lincoln Steffens, Ida Tarbell, and Upton Sinclair (195). This strikes me as overly charitable, given that those individuals backed assertions with evidence far more substantial than heated rhetoric. To be sure, Piatt exposed hypocrisy and corruption during the Gilded Age, though it wasn’t all that taxing to unearth malfeasance in the Grant administration, nor was it page one news that members of Congress were embroiled in graft.
In 1889, when the 69-year-old Piatt asked Mark Twain to contribute to Belford’s Magazine, Twain simply ignored his letter. By then Donn Piatt had already been confined to the margins where most Gilded Age historians store him. When I think of under-examined Gilded Age editors and reporters, my thoughts run more toward John Swinton, T. Thomas Fortune, Myron Colony, and Patrick and Mary Ford. Donn Piatt has his fascinations, but he should be studied as a transitional figure in journalism’s shift from partisanship to (outward) objectivity. He was ultimately less a gadfly than a limited lifespan fruit fly.
Robert E. Weir
University of Massachusetts Amherst
Do you have a recent book you’d like to display at the fall NEPCA conference? If so, please contact Julie DeCesare and let her know you’d like to do so. Email Julie at: email@example.com
The NYLO Hotel in Warwick has set aside 15 rooms for NEPCA. There are other options available under the Fall Conference tab.
400 Knight Street, Warwick, RI
This hotel is a 16-minute drive to Providence College. It has reserved 15 rooms at $129 per night if booked before September 26. See www.nylohotels.com/warwick
New Books in Pop Culture (http://newbooksinpopculture.com/) is currently seeking hosts interested in conducting interviews with authors of new books on popular culture. Hosting the channel is a good way to bring the work of scholars of popular cuture to the attention of large audiences. Interested parties should write Marshall Poe at firstname.lastname@example.org.
New Books in Pop Culture is part of the New Books Network http://newbooksnetwork.com, a non-profit consortium of 100 author-interview podcasts focused on academic books.
Click on the Conference Tab above to find a list of suggested hotels for the 2014 NEPCA conference in Providence.
The Organization of American Historians and the Labor and Working-Class History Association is currently seeking submissions for the 2015 David Montgomery Book Award recognizing the best book on a topic in American labor and working-class history.
This award is given in recognition of David Montgomery’s incalculable impact on the historical study of workers’ lives, aspirations and struggles in the U.S. and worldwide. Bringing to his scholarship a perspective honed through his own trade union and political activism, he was a creative, defining force in the “new labor history.” His attention to workers’ self-activity, on and off the job, fundamentally altered our understanding of American history on topics ranging from Reconstruction to globalization.
David Montgomery mentored generations of scholars at the University of Pittsburgh and Yale University and served as the President of the OAH from 1999-2000.
Submission Guidelines and Procedures
To be eligible, works shall be written in English and deal with United States history but may include comparative or transnational studies. Entry must be published between January 1, 2014, and December 31, 2014. The award will be presented at the 2015 OAH Annual Meeting in St. Louis, Missouri, April 16-19. Submission Deadline is October 1, 2014.
Submission procedures and information are available at http://www.oah.org/programs/awards/david-montgomery-award/
“In celebration of the 2014 NEPCA Annual Conference, the Providence College Phillips Memorial Library + Commons will be showcasing an exhibit of recent books authored by NEPCA members.
Ideally, we are looking for donations of monographs published within the past 7 years. The exhibit will be up Oct 2014 through January 2014. Space is limited and the deadline is August 29, 2014. Please send the book to:
Phillips Memorial Library
1 Cunningham Square
Providence, RI 02918